Thumb on the Scales

As some mix of manic euphoria, delirium and exhaustion settles over Democrats nationwide, it’s worth stepping back from the clamor for a moment to consider just why it is the Democrats have superdelegates (which the Republicans don’t) in the first place and whether the whole concept should be abolished.

Obama supporters say that the superdelegates as a group should not overturn the verdict of the primary and caucus election process while Clinton supporters say that it’s precisely the point of the super delegates to make their own considered judgment about who the party’s nominee should be regardless of the finally tally of pledged delegates. The second accurately portrays why the superdelegates were created.

In fact, even this description puts too gentle a gloss on it. Coming out of the 1970s, the Democratic party establishment created the superdelegates precisely to put a brake on the power of “the groups”, which was shorthand for, and not necessarily in this order, the hippies, the blacks, the gays, the feminists, the environmentalists and everyone else suspected of driving the Democratic party to the left of the American mainstream and out of contention in national elections. In this view, there were ordinary Democrats on the one hand and these assorted freaks on the other who came out every four years and out-organized the ordinary Dems to nominate rotten presidential candidates who got slaughtered in national elections.

The more palatable argument was that the superdelegates balanced out the idealism of party activists with the more pragmatic experience of party regulars and elected officials who had experience winning actual elections. But however you argue it, the supers were put there precisely to second-guess the results of the primary and caucus process.

And there the decision stood, fixed almost as though in amber, after 1982 when the system was created. But it never really mattered because all the presidential nomination battles since then either had a clear plurality winner or didn’t even go on long enough for the superdelegates to really be an issue. And now we wake up more than twenty years later wondering just why we have these superdelegates in the first place.

Before being too judgmental toward the people who came up with this bright idea, we should note that the Democratic party was a very different thing and in a very different place back then than it is today — at mid-point in an agonizing process of molting from the dominant but bifurcated party of mid-century America to the very different party it is today. With that said though, this was 1982, not 1782. So I doubt very much that the concept would have withstood actual application — that is, having the superdelegates overrule the pledged delegate tally — even back then. Indeed, it’s not only that the concept is less palatable today. The sociology of the party is simply different; from the inside I don’t think the party’s critics any longer see its shortcomings in that way. The superdelegate concept was just a bad idea that got kept on the books because it seemed not to have any practical effect other than to give federal officeholders and sundry party bigwigs credentials to attend the conventions.

So what to do about it now? As you may know, there are almost 800 superdelegates and they’re divided roughly equally between elected officials and party officials. While I think the superdelegate system should probably be scrapped in its entirety, the rationale for the elected folks is far, far greater than for the party operatives. The electeds are basically every Democratic member of Congress, Democratic governors and then a few miscellaneous folks like ex-presidents, ex-vice presidents and ex-congressional leaders. These folks are actually elected by Democrats on a fairly regular basis. And if they abuse the power they can be held accountable at the ballot box.

Now, back in February, Susan Estrich wrote a piece about just how the decision to create the superdelegate system was made back in 1982. (She was against the superdelegate concept because she was on the Teddy Kennedy team — long story — but was on the Rules Commission that set up the system.) She has a good run-down of just what the politics were at the time. But if I read her correctly, she seems to say that what the Rules Commission decided was basically just to make the elected folks superdelegates. It was only later that the DNC added its own membership to the list of supers — a terrible and self-serving idea.

Just to recite the catechism, these are the rules this process is being run under. No changing the rules in midstream. But once this race is over and everybody can reconsider this matter without having to think about how it affects one particular candidate or another, Democrats need either to strip the superdelegate list down to members of Congress and governors (and the ex-presidents, speakers, et al.) or get rid of the whole superdelegate idea entirely.

Late Update: Having reread this post over a few times, there’s an additional factor I should have noted. We now think of the presidential nomination contest as an ordinary one-person, one-vote election process, with individual elections in each state and territory following their own custom-tailored rules. With that guiding assumption, the unelected super-delegates are an anomaly. But that assumption is relatively new. And in 1982 it was newer still. As recently as the 1960s there were only a smattering of states that had primaries as we understand them today. And even those often elected ‘favorite son’ candidates, which essentially meant signing the state’s delegates over to one of the state’s most powerful elected officials. In other states, delegations were chosen by the state party or even just the dominant political boss. What all of that boils down to is that the superdelegate system devised in 1982 was just a more formalized though much more limited version of the system that had existed only a couple decades earlier. I still think it should have been obvious that it was a clock that couldn’t be turned back. But in analyzing what happened in 1982, we should keep in mind recently the party boss system had still been in force.

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